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The Unfriend at Wyndham’s Theatre | Review

It’s one of those plays where one is inclined to think the circumstances in the show couldn’t possibly happen to oneself in real life. And, goodness me, this is a highly contrived plotline – characters make their entrances at just the ‘right’, or indeed the ‘wrong’ time, such that a private conversation between other characters is immediately made awkward by the sudden presence of the subject in question. A front door is supposedly mistakenly left open – and so is the back door. Now, I remember the days when people weren’t all that bothered about whether the back door was double-locked or not, and one certainly wouldn’t, having gone to bed for the night, go to the trouble of getting back up again to make sure. But that was before the days of social media, laptops, mobile telephony and computer games consoles, and all of those feature in this contemporary play.

Sarah Alexander, Frances Barber and Lee Mack in The Unfriend - photo by Manuel Harlan.
Sarah Alexander, Frances Barber and Lee Mack in The Unfriend – photo by Manuel Harlan.

Still, the conclusion was, at least to me, somewhat unpredictable, even if a toilet humour scene dragged on for so long that the production was, proverbially speaking of course, flogging a dead horse. Peter (Lee Mack) and Debbie (Sarah Alexander) leave their teenage children Alex (Jem Matthews) and Rosie (Maddie Holliday) behind – with whom, it isn’t made clear – to go on a cruise: a particularly gregarious fellow cruiser, Elsa (Frances Barber), from Denver – or so she says. She and the couple agree to exchange details (I realise I’ve made this sound as though they were in a road traffic accident), but it is only when Debbie takes up Elsa’s offer to look her (Elsa) up online that she discovers Elsa has a shady past, to say the least.

Attention to detail isn’t exactly this play’s strong point – if mainstream media reports about Elsa are to be believed (cough, cough), then why isn’t she behind bars or at least on bail awaiting trial? Given her photograph has been broadcast on television news and is readily available online, would she not be recognised pretty much wherever she went? Add to this a mischievous streak in Elsa, in the sense that she doesn’t necessarily mean in a literal sense everything she says. For instance, at the start of the play, Peter is reading about a certain political figure, and is angry about what he reads (in The Guardian, no less). When Elsa tells him she voted for the politician in question, is she only saying so to push Peter’s buttons?

The Unfriend, then, raises more questions than it answers, although I concede I may be overanalysing something that is meant to be a comedy. Completing the set of on-stage characters are The Neighbour (Nick Sampson) – nobody else knows his name, as he is allegedly so boring no-one in Peter’s family has ever bothered to find out – and PC Junkin (Mazz Khan), who questions Elsa but is otherwise something of a stock character, not exactly the most intellectual of bobbies on the beat.

There are some worthy points raised in the show about relative (and indeed absolute) truth, and the dynamics of British society in which civility and politeness can sometimes be considered more important than getting to the point. Witnessing The Neighbour getting nowhere in his repeated attempts to persuade Peter to agree to share repair costs to a garden perimeter is a good example of a general need to be firmer and more assertive when necessary. The problem is that none of that is particularly amusing – and while the show has a strong cast, for the most part, The Unfriend would be better called The Unfunny. Even if it was curious enough to hold my attention throughout.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Fresh from breaking Box Office records earlier this year, prepare to welcome The Unfriend back to the West End for a strictly limited run at Wyndham’s Theatre from 16 December.

BAFTA Award winning comedian Lee Mack (Not Going Out, Would I Lie To You?) and Sarah Alexander (Coupling, Smack The Pony) join Frances Barber (Silk, Doctor Who) as she reprises her force of nature performance in this smash hit comedy from writer Steven Moffat and director Mark Gatiss, the celebrated team behind BBC’s Sherlock.

While on holiday Peter and Debbie befriend Elsa: a lusty, Trump-loving widow from Denver, USA. She’s less than woke but kind of wonderful, so they agree to stay in touch – because no one ever really does, do they?

When Elsa invites herself to stay with the family a few months later, they decide to look her up online. But it’s too late: on learning the truth about Elsa Jean Krakowski, the deadly danger is already on a flight to London! What began as a casual holiday friendship is suddenly a threat to all their lives.

Peter and Debbie now face the ultimate challenge of the modern world – how do you protect all that you love from mortal peril without seeming a bit impolite?

Because guess who’s coming… to MURDER.

he Unfriend cast and creative team
By: Steven Moffat
Director: Mark Gatiss
Cast list: Lee Mack (as Peter), Sarah Alexander (as Debbie), Frances Barber (as Elsa), Nick Sampson (as the Neighbor), Muzz Khan (as PC Junkin), Maddie Holiday (as Rosie), Jem Matthews (as Alex)
Design: Robert Jones
Costumes: Robert Jones
Lighting: Mark Henderson Sound: Ella Wahlström
Other info: Video design and animation by Andrzej Goulding

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